Nowadays, an American political scandal hits social media feeds within seconds of the news breaking. But we don’t know as much about the controversies that shattered and shaped the country in its earliest years. The following are 20 of the biggest scandals that rocked the nation after it became independent in 1776 – and one of them was the biggest until Watergate.
20. Crédit Mobilier – congressional bribes to keep a money grab alive
In the 1860s the Union Pacific Railroad had big plans ahead to build a transcontinental set of tracks. They would need help to do it, so they contracted a construction company called Crédit Mobilier of America to help them. However, the deal was not at all that it seemed, and, soon enough businessmen, congressmen and even the vice president would be embroiled in a massive scandal.
It turned out that Union Pacific executives created Crédit Mobilier in a scheme to line their pockets with the exorbitant construction contracts they obtained. And, to ensure that the government kept their nose out of it, Congressman Oakes Ames began to bribe others in the legislative branch. By the time they got found out, the big wigs had pocketed in excess of $23 million. And, in the end, none of the Congressmen involved were expelled from their positions.
19. The U.S. fought an unofficial war against France
The French Revolution kicked off in 1789 – when U.S. was a mere 13 years old and President John Adams sat at the country’s helm. Even with drama on the streets of Paris and beyond, he had to send a group of American delegates to the French capital city. Adams needed them to find out why his nation’s ships – en route to the U.K. – were continually being stopped and searched by the French.
Rather than explain themselves, the French contingency countered the Americans’ inquiry with an offer – pay us, and we’ll negotiate. The U.S. officials didn’t take the deal and instead went home. At first, they didn’t spill the details of the diplomats’ behavior, but when the public wondered why there had been no progress, Adams released the meeting notes. After that, the two countries engaged in an unofficial naval conflict called the Quasi War from 1797 to 1800.
18. George Washington almost lost a major leadership role
George Washington served as the first President of the United States for eight years from 1789. Perhaps he would not have ascended to the most powerful seat in the nation without his remarkable military credentials. But not everyone saw them that way, and some believed he was more of a cult figure than an actual leader – especially when the colonies lost Philadelphia on his watch.
Brigadier General Thomas Conway wanted a promotion and used Washington’s unsteady footing to his advantage. He penned letters to Congress expressing his unease with Washington’s leadership. But the future president intercepted some of that correspondence and made them public, and his allies challenged Conway to a duel. The latter accepted and lost – taking a bullet through the mouth.
17. The ultimate spit-take
Matthew Lyon won his first bid for Congress, and he then ran in four more elections before securing his return. But the Democratic-Republican from Kentucky did little to ingratiate himself to his coworkers. Instead, he became the first Congressman ever to be investigated for violating House rules in 1798. Specifically, Lyon faced charges of gross indecency for spitting in Congressman Roger Griswold’s face.
Griswold had, indeed, thrown serious shade at Lyon – speaking negatively of his time fighting in the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, the latter apologized for spitting, but Griswold wouldn’t accept it. Instead, he attacked Lyon with a cane on the House floor, and the Kentuckian retaliated by grabbing tongs from a nearby fire. No one got seriously injured, but Lyon did go to jail – which actually boosted his popularity and earned him a re-election.
16. A corrupt bargain (eventually) bags Andrew Jackson the presidency
The 1824 presidential election is what some would call a “corrupt bargain” – a political agreement seen as unscrupulous. That year, no candidate earned the electoral college majority required to win the presidency. Andrew Jackson got closest, with 99 tallies in the electoral college and 41.1 percent of the popular vote. John Quincy Adams came in second with 84 and 30.9 percent respectively.
Still, Jackson needed 131 electoral college votes to win, so the final decision went to the House of Representatives. But they somehow selected Adams over the majority winner, and it caused outrage among those who had voted for his opponent. Four years later, though, Jackson finally got his moment – he beat Adams’ bid for re-election in a landslide victory.
15. Modern presidents aren’t the only ones to get impeached
President Andrew Johnson didn’t agree with the 1868 Tenure of Office Act – which limited his ability to remove government office-holders without Senate approval. He tried vetoing the bill, but that proved unsuccessful. So, he just removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton anyway, which he knew would cause a major political crisis.
Johnson then became the first-ever U.S. president to face impeachment. His trial took place in March 1868, and the chamber returned a stunning verdict – 35 in favor of and 19 against impeachment. Of course, an impeachment doesn’t go through without a two-thirds majority, and Johnson avoided removal from his office by a single vote.
14. It took 202 years to ratify the 27th Amendment
It all started with an event known as the Salary Grab of 1873. Ulysses S. Grant had just won his second term in office, and Congress almost passed a bill that would double his salary to $50,000, the equivalent of $1 million today. On top of that, the bill would give Supreme Court Justices a raise. And the most egregious part was a proposed increase for Congressmen – who would receive backdated payments to make up for the last term, too.
The public hated this idea, so Congress gave up on their over-the-top raises, but that wasn’t enough for the state of Ohio. In 1789 it ratified an amendment to the Constitution, which said representatives could only vote for raises that would take effect in the next term. It didn’t pass for 202 years after that. College student Gregory Watson wrote a paper on the amendment in 1982. And when his professor argued the legislation still wouldn’t pass, Watson launched a national campaign – eventually making the 27th Amendment official in 1992.
13. An almost-murder on the floor of Congress
Debate about the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1856 brought out the worst in some of the Congressmen at that time. For reference, the law would have given citizens in those states the right to choose whether or not to allow slavery. And Senator Charles Sumner didn’t mince his words when, according to History.com, he called Representative Andrew Butler of South Carolina “a ‘zealot’ who was enamored with the ‘harlot’ of slavery.”
Three days later in the Senate chamber, Brooks cornered Sumner and pulled a metal-topped cane on him – whacking him over the head until the makeshift weapon began to splinter. It took Sumner a stunning three years to recover from the injuries inflicted by Brooks. Meanwhile, the latter didn’t lose his seat, and the scandal only made him more popular in the South.
12. Only one marriage allowed in Congress
George Quayle Cannon earned his seat in Congress as Utah’s territorial delegate in 1872 and easily won re-election in 1880 by a margin of 18,567 to 1,357. And yet, the territory’s governor handed the election to Cannon’s opponent, Allen Campbell, because Cannon’s lifestyle behind closed doors went against federal law.
Namely, Cannon was a polygamist, which went against the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. Congress eventually sat a third candidate in Utah’s territorial delegate seat, but the damage had been done. Cannon’s case brought national attention to polygamy – sparking Congress to pass the Edmunds Act in March 1882. It made polygamy a felony and barred practitioners from public office. Nevertheless, Cannon refused to give up his beliefs, and it landed him in jail in September 1888.
11. Congress’ first expulsion happened in 1797
In the early history of the U.S., politicians had so many chances to be the first to do something. Continental Congressman William Blount holds the distinct honor of being the first official expelled from the Senate. He earned it, of course – he was in on a scheme to help the British to take over Spanish-held lands in modern-day Louisiana and Florida.
Somehow, a letter in which Blount detailed some portion of the plan ended up in the lap of President John Adams in 1797. The Senate wasted no time and voted to expel him in July of that year. And yet, Blount’s career thrived afterward – at least, in the state of Tennessee. There, he became a member of the state legislature and was even chosen as speaker.
10. The biggest American scandal – until Watergate, anyway
President Warren G. Harding made the mistake of hiring friends with malintent as members of his cabinet. The worst of a bad bunch was Albert B. Fall – who served as Secretary of the Interior. At first, two major U.S. oil reserves didn’t fall under Fall’s jurisdiction. California’s Elk Hills and Wyoming’s Teapot Dome had been earmarked for use by the U.S. Navy only.
But Fall convinced Harding to take control of the oil reserves from the Navy and give it to the Department of the Interior. Once that happened, Fall leased each property without taking multiple bids. As soon as Congress investigated, they learned why; he had taken up to $400,000 in bribes and loans to speed up the leasing process. Fall was convicted for the crime of accepting bribes and went to jail – becoming the first-ever sitting cabinet member to do so.
9. A conspiracy that went down like timber
The Oregon and California Railroad would run across the continent, and the U.S. government wanted to facilitate its construction. So, it granted the railway company three million acres of land in 1870, across which they could build their tracks. Of course, they didn’t need every square inch of the land provided, so the company sold off 160-acre bundles to locals at the bargain price of $2.50 per acre. The offer didn’t attract many buyers, though, because the land wasn’t fit for development.
But the land did have quite a bit of viable timber, which piqued the interest of Southern Pacific Railroad’s Edward Harriman. He couldn’t buy the properties himself, so he had locals buy it, then transfer the rights to one of his associates. It took a huge crew of conspirators to make this plan work – that is, until the District Attorney found out about it. Ultimately, 35 people faced charges, including Senator John Mitchell, who was convicted, and House Representatives John Williamson and Binger Hermann, who got off scot-free.
8. Rumors about a cabinet member’s wife almost toppled the Jackson presidency
Considering some of today’s political scandals, this one seems relatively tame – at least, at first. President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War John Eaton married his wife Peggy just months after her first husband killed himself. As such, she couldn’t break into the city’s social circles, and rumors swirled about her first marriage. Some whispered that her former husband had committed suicide because she’d had an affair with her second spouse, John.
In the White House, though, Jackson had taken a shine to Peggy, as she reminded him of his own wife who had passed away. So, he began to fight for Peggy’s honor – calling character witnesses and challenging her critics. But the rumors barely subsided, and it led the president to believe that it was all a plot to take him down. Eventually, he removed the majority of his cabinet members and swapped his vice president in his second term, too.
7. Grover Cleveland’s messy personal life played out in the press
In 1884 Grover Cleveland ran for president on the Democratic Party’s ticket, and he had a wholesome image – at least, at first. Then, Republicans started to reveal details of his salacious past. Namely, the nominee had a child with Maria Halpin, although the two weren’t married. Instead of doing the right thing, he’d sent their son to an orphanage and had Halpin committed.
The sex scandal fed the papers throughout the 1884 election. Democratic dailies defended Cleveland and casted the blame on Halpin instead. But the Republicans had a field day – they even shared Halpin’s side of the story, in which she contended that the nominee had raped her. In the end, though, Cleveland won the election by a very small margin.
6. The country’s first major sex scandal kicked off in 1791
In 1791 the U.S. was still a fledgling nation, but it was old enough to have its first big sex scandal. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton embarked on what he thought was a secret affair with Maria Reynolds – a married woman. However, her husband, James, knew everything, and he wanted money for his silence. Hamilton paid him $1,000, but that wasn’t the end of the story.
Hamilton and Maria continued their rendezvouses for months afterward. Then, James found himself embroiled in a separate financial scandal in 1792. So, he played his trump card – he revealed the Hamilton’s infidelity and accused him of financial impropriety. Fellow politicians quietly confronted the latter, and he admitted to the relationship while exonerating himself of financial wrongdoing, so they kept the relationship quiet. Five years later, though, a journalist found the pair’s love letters, published them, and forever tarnished Hamilton’s reputation.
5. A Congressman committed murder in broad daylight
New York Congressman Daniel Sickles received a letter that revealed a heartbreaking secret. His wife, Teresa, had been involved in an ongoing affair with his pal Philip Barton Key II – the son of “The Star-Spangled Banner” lyricist Francis Scott Key. Everyone in Washington seemed to know about the tryst, which likely made it even worse news to uncover. Understandably, Sickles was outraged.
So, in early 1859 Sickles confronted Key just outside of the White House. Then, the Congressman pulled a gun on the attorney and shot him dead in front of multiple witnesses. When the case went to trial, Sickles’ defense team gave a then-novel explanation for the crime – temporary insanity. The jury deliberated for only 70 minutes before they acquitted the hurt husband of his crimes.
4. Aaron Burr wanted to run the American West
Aaron Burr couldn’t keep himself away from controversy. Less than a year after dueling with and killing Alexander Hamilton, he found himself accused in a shocking scheme. To this day, his plans remain murky, but it seemed as though Burr wanted to invade western territories and push out the Spanish leadership. Apparently, he would then install himself as leader of a new empire.
Burr didn’t just dream up this plan, though – he started to set the wheels in motion. In 1806, for instance, he had stockpiled military equipment and had gathered recruits on an island in the middle of the Ohio River. The siege never came to fruition, though, as his co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, relented and ratted out Burr to then-President Thomas Jefferson. Burr was charged with – but never convicted of – treason for the incident, and it ruined his reputation.
3. A scandalous North Carolina Congressman ended up murdered in Texas
Robert Potter’s Congressional career began without much fanfare in 1828 when he became a House Representative for North Carolina. But he’d soon lose his seat in the nation’s capital after he attacked two men whom he incorrectly accused of sleeping with his wife. Still, Potter’s return to North Carolina saw him back in politics, as he won an election to join the state’s legislature.
True to form, Potter’s time in the N.C. House ended swiftly after he supposedly cheated at a card game and then pulled a knife and a gun over the match. So, he moved to Texas and joined the state’s revolution – he even signed the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence. During a later Texas-based conflict called the Regulator-Moderator War, Potter attempted to escape militia by swimming across a lake. But in the end, soldiers shot him and he drowned.
2. The first female in the Senate press chamber broke man code
Jane Swisshelm had defied the odds as a female journalist in the mid-19th century. She became the first woman to join the Senate press chamber and made a name for herself as a staunch abolitionist. That’s why Swisshelm couldn’t turn a blind eye when she found out that Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster was in a long-term affair with a slave and had fathered eight children with her.
However, others in the Senate’s press box knew about Webster’s indiscretions. Though they kept them a secret because of their “Gentlemen’s Code” – which kept personal lives private. Swisshelm, however, found Webster a hypocrite for standing against the expansion of slavery while engaging in an affair with an enslaved woman. So, she revealed all in an exposé about the Senator, but it backfired – her career in the Senate ended, while his continued.
1. Some members of the government started a Whiskey Ring
In the late 19th century the government slapped a 70-cents-a-gallon tax on liquor sales. So, federal agents and distillers plotted to cut the amount they’d pay in taxes by under-reporting their sales – allowing them to pocket the government’s take. The scheme started out as a St.Louis-based scam, but it soon extended to Chicago, Milwaukee and New Orleans. And by 1875 these tactics had raised up to $1.5 million per year in illegal profits for those involved, according to History.com.
Unfortunately for the schemers, Benjamin Bristow became the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in 1874, and he uncovered the Whiskey Ring. His secret investigations led to the indictments of hundreds of liquor sellers and federal agents, too. Even President Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary Orville Babcock was implicated, but the former testified to his employee’s innocence.